Ancient Cities Archeological Lessons

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On the 24th of August in the year AD 79 a catastrophic volcanic eruption devastated life in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This same event, while destroying the lives of many, preserved the town's architectural structures and its decorative arts, as well as some organic materials. Upon later excavations these objects looked as brilliant as they did on that fateful day they were covered in volcanic ash. One such second century B.C. Samnite structure has been named the Casa del Fauno, or "House of the Faun", after a sculpture of the mythological creature found in the house's impluvium. The House of the Faun illustrates the concerns of its wealthy occupants through its construction and decoration, while significantly increasing our modern day knowledge of Roman societal values and mindsets during the Republican period.

The House of the Faun occupies approximately 30,000 square feet or 3000 square meters. It boasts of two atria and two peristyle courtyards. One courtyard was done in the Doric style and the other in the Ionic style. These atria and peristyle courtyards were surrounded by smaller bedrooms (cubicula), a bath suite (balneum), a stable, dining rooms (triclinia), kitchen, the owner's office (tablinum), and reception room (oecus) among others. There seems to have been an expansion and renovation of the House in the late second century B.C., although this has been doubted by other scholars based on the presence of a unified house plan. The influence of Hellenistic culture in Pompeii is evident in the use of the Greek style in architecture as well as in the decor of the "Oscan Palaces". It was the preoccupation of the Oscan aristocrats to imitate everything Greek. The use of space in the House of the Faun however is unlike Grecian homes and instead can be found in the palaces of Pella, a city in the Macedonian Kingdom. In fact, only one-third of the house is actual living space.

The richest inhabitants did not show any restraint when it came to displaying their knowledge of Greek culture. The House of the Faun's owner was no exception. When a visitor entered the tetrastyle atrium of the house he would have a spectacular view of both of the peristyle gardens. This view alone would have filled the owner's guests with a sense of splendor. He also added a second-story wall in one of his atrium. The atrium's lower half was done in the old Tuscan style while the second-story wall was painted with Ionic columns. The front entryway was indeed meant to impress his visitors. Upon entering, if a visitor looked about 8 feet up, one would be met with two opposing walls with temple facades made of stucco. The peristyle garden that takes up almost the entire back of the house has no functional purpose, but instead seems only to be a tool to express the owner's own grandeur and prosperity. Possibly this area could have been used as a stage for performances including recitations, mimes, and other types of drama.

The need for everything to be Greek drove the occupants of this house to import furniture, supplies, and bronze statues from the East. The very decorations they used were of Greek origin. The use of the plastic and painted style in wall decoration is best illustrated by the House of the Faun. The two most prominent types of decoration found in the House of the Faun are the use of wall paintings and mosaics. The wall paintings found in the House of the Faun are mainly of the first Pompeian style. Although there are a few examples of the second, third, and fourth styles. There are four Pompeian wall painting styles. The first style was used during the Republican period of Roman history and was influenced by Greek wall paintings and the Hellenistic East. This simple style is characterized by its imitation of colored marble blocks. Some were even given the appearance of veins in order to emulate the look of authentic marble. These painted walls would have been burnished until they had a glossy shine to them in order to further reproduce marble's appearance. Pliny states that extravagant villas in Roman would have made use of imported marble to decorate the walls. With this in mind, a wealthy family that could not afford to import marble could have blocks painted to replicate them and still be considered elite.

Another type of decoration used in the House of the Faun is mosaic flooring. Mosaics are made by pressing different colored tesserae and glass into a soft mortar bedding. Afterwards the surface would be cleaned and polished. Often times a sketch of the work can be found underneath the tiles themselves. The floor mosaics found in the House of the Faun include an erotic scene of a satyr and nymph found in a cubiculum, a still-life of fish in one of the dining rooms, a mosaic depicting two masks of tragedy and drums surrounded by a garland with fruit was found on the threshold of the atrium, and the famous Alexander Mosaic. On the floor of the vestibule a mosaic floor with the Latin word "HAVE" inscribed greeted his company. Many of the mosaic subjects are Greek myths or Hellenistic heroes. The style themselves come from the western Greek style. Oscan families needed to show their familiarity with Greek culture and the best way to do this is to depict Greek scenes that would be easily recognized. Clearly Classical learning was of tantamount importance to the aristocratic families.

The Alexander Mosaic, about 9 x 17 feet in size, is one of the largest mosaics preserved from antiquity. This mosaic depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and King Darius III of Persia. It was placed in its own exedra and could be seen from both sides of the house. This exedra was flanked by two Corinthian pillars. This tribute to Alexander the Great, a Hellenistic leader, is believed to have been a copy of a painting by Philoxenos of Eretria around 300 B.C. The method of opus vermiculatum was employed to create this elaborate piece of art. Opus vermiculatum mosaics were created by setting closely together tesserae of colored stone and glass less than 4 square mm in size in a "worm-like" pattern. This effect enables the artist to create very detailed images. Directly in front of the Alexander Mosaic is a Nilotic mosaic done in a more primitive style. Ordinary Pompeian homes would have meager geometric designed mosaics, like that in the floor of the tablinum, while the elaborate narrative pieces, like the satyr and nymph scene in the bedroom, were strictly an upper class commodity.

Excavations in Herculaneum began after a farmer was digging a well, in the eighteenth century, and uncovered an ancient road. During an excavation of Herculaneum on March 23, 1748 Pompeii was discovered. Excavations have continued sporadically since that date. One can explore the remains of the House of the Faun in Pompeii today. While the artworks have been relocated to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples they have been replaced by imitations to give visitor a sense of the homes luxury. It has also recently been the house that a love story is written around in "The House of the Faun: A Novel of Pompeii" by Carolyn Doggett Smith.

The House of the Faun with its elaborate open architectural plan and lavish wall and floor decorations would have been a throng of dinner guests, visitors, and parties. The owner of this house spent as his pocketbook allowed and commissioned elaborate floor mosaics and statues with Greek themes. The Oscan family who lived in this house help us to understand the societal values of Pompeii. The aristocratic families did not isolate themselves, but rather created magnificent homes for visitors to see their luxurious and Hellenistic style of living.


Christensen, A.M., 2006. "From Palaces to Pompeii: The Architectural and Social Context of Hellenistic Floor Mosaics in the House of the Faun" Ph.D. diss., Florida State University

Christensen earned her Ph.D. in 2006. She has the best discussion of the use of mosaics in the House of the Faun. Of particular interest was her detailed discussion on the Alexander Mosaic and styles of mosaic in general. The discussion on the House of the Faun in general was rather extensive and very helpful.

Cooley, A.E., and Cooley, M.G.L. 2004. Pompeii: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Alison Cooley is a lecturer in the Department of Classics, University of Warwick and M. Cooley teaches Classics at King Henry VIII School, Coventry. This sourcebook includes amphorae labels, graffiti, advertisements, etc. All of these written by Pompeii's everyday citizenship. In addition to these written records are notes and commentary by the authors gives insight into what life was like in the town. Cooley gives an excellent account of the excavation notes from the House of the Faun.

Dwyer, E. 2001, September. "The Unified Plan of the House of the Faun." The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 60, No. 3. pp. 328-343. (February 17, 2008)

Dwyer disputes the theory that the House of the Faun is the result of two building phases. He states that is unified in its overall plan and therefore it is unlikely that it was remodeled.

Little, A.M.G. 1935, July-September. "The Decoration of the Hellenistic Peristyle House in South Italy." American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 39, No. 3. pp. 360-371. (February 20, 2008)

Little goes into great, almost exhaustive, discussion of the Hellenic influence on the decoration found in Southern Italian homes, in particular those of Pompeii. The House of the Faun is used to illustrate the movement form the Plastic Style of decoration to the Painted Style.

Meyer, J.P. 2007, June. "Italy Travel: Pompeii House of Faun." (February 16, 2008)

Meyer's video was helpful in realizing the layout of the House of the Faun in more than just a 2-D manifestation. Since I have not seen it firsthand this account was advantageous.

Pliny. 1962. Pliny: Natural History. Volume X, Books 36-37. Translated by D. E. Eichholz. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

A great translation by Eichholz. Pliny mentions in book 36 the way Roman Villas were often decorated with imported marble blocks. Because the House of the Faun was imitating these Roman Villas the first style of Pompeian wall paintings was mainly mimicking the look of this imported marble. Ramage and Ramage (see below) give a great discussion of this style.

Ramage, N. H., and Ramage, A. 2005. Roman Art. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Nancy H. Ramage is Charles A. Dana Professor in the Humanities and Arts at Ithaca College and Andrew Ramage is Professor of the History of Art and Archaeology at Cornell University. This text is a survey of Roman art covering around 1300 years of architecture, painting, sculpture, etc. For my purposes their discussion of Roman wall paintings and in depth summary of the four Pompeian styles was of great help. Also their discussion of Roman mosaics, including the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, provided a greater understanding of the technique and style used.

Wallace-Hadrill, A. 1994. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wallace-Hadrill, Professor of Classics at the University of Reading in England, goes to great lengths to illustrate the relationship between Pompeian architecture and decoration as a reflection of their societal values. For instance, the wealthy Romans would expend great resources on creating lavish homes just to impress their visitors.

Westgate, R. 2000, April. "Pavimenta atque emblemata vermiculata: Regional Styles in Hellenistic Mosaic and the First Mosaics at Pompeii." American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 104, No. 2. pp. 255-275. (February 20, 2008)

Westgate discusses the similarities and differences between Greek and later Pompeian mosaics. She also states that the Pompeian style is derived from the western Greek style. For other discussion on the mosaics of Pompeii and their production see Christensen above.

Winks, R. W., and Mattern-Parkes, S. P. 2004. The Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Stone Age to A.D. 600. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Winks, Jr. Professor of History at Yale University and Mattern-Parkes, Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia, discuss the dynamics of everyday families, social class, and society as a whole. Their discussion of the House of the Faun is brief, but describes the unique relationship between the upper class patrician families and the lower class of Pompeii. Without military or political distractions its people could instead focus on increasing their wealth and opening their house to guests for lavish parties.

Zanker, P. 1998. Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.

Paul Zanker, Professor of Classical Archeology, University of Munich and Director of the German Archeological Institute in Rome, focuses on the evolution of Pompeian architecture as a reflection on civilian and civic life. Zanker not only illustrates the public and private life of Pompeii, but also of the Early Roman Empire through it's influence. Since the Italic people were not given Roman citizenship they instead focused their time on increasing their own personal wealth and influence. The more powerful families focused on increasing their private homes instead of public monumental building campaigns.

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